Disclaimer: All characters except Gil Macgaw are not mine. Follows my earlier story "Forever."
Cameron thought Chicago was a truly well designed city. Perfectly flat, with almost all streets laid out and numbered in a grid system: easy to navigate, even for the directionally challenged. Or so she thought.
"What are you doing? Don't turn here, keep going straight!" John called from the back seat.
Derek took one hand off the wheel to massage his stiff neck. "The University's on East 59th Street," he responded.
"Yeah, but 59th has just the one lane, and tons of stoplights and stop signs," John replied wriggling slightly as he recalled the supersized soda he'd had for lunch. "It'll take us forever to get there!"
"John is correct," Cameron confirmed after a pause. "If you take Garfield Boulevard instead, we will arrive on campus 15 minutes sooner."
"And I can find a damn bathroom!" added John.
"Fine," grumbled Derek, knowing better than to argue with Cameron when it came to navigation. As the light changed, he drove straight through the intersection.
30 minutes later
"Much, much better," sighed John in relief as he scooted into a cramped graffiti-encrusted wooden booth next to Cameron. "Man, I needed that."
"Did you wash your hands?"
"Did you wash your hands?"
John looked at his mother and his girlfriend, rolling his eyes. "Yes, OK? Geez, you forget just one time …"
"Cleanliness is important for optimal health," Cameron informed him
"Besides," added Derek as he looked up from his menu. "In the future, running water's scarce. You'd be surprised how much you miss something as simple as being able to wash your hands before dinner. Or dinner," he noted.
"Way to bring the room down, Derek," muttered John as he scanned the menu himself. They'd come to the crowded, noisy restaurant after asking a random student on the street for a recommendation. Barely looking up from his book, he replied, "The Med. Two streets that way." Clearly it was a popular choice for students still young enough to be conscious of their budget, but not old enough to require rigorous monitoring of their cholesterol levels.
"The vertical elevation of this room has not changed since we entered it," Cameron said, looking at John strangely.
"He means that Derek said something depressing," Sarah explained. Frowning, she eyed the glass of ice water in front of her dubiously. Not just the walls and tables, but the chairs, plates and glasses were coated with the scrawls of University of Chicago's brightest—though not always sober—minds.
"Sex is God," her glass helpfully told her, while her bread plate had an incomprehensible series of equations on it, ending with the letters "QED."
"The burgers look good," John noted, eyeing a waitress carrying a tray full of them to a neighboring table. "Let's just get something and we'll go find our guy." He motioned the waitress over.
After they'd all placed their orders, Derek voiced the key problem. "This Macgaw guy … his work's already out there. It's been published, seen, cached on the Internet. What is it that we think we can do here to keep things contained?"
Last month, one of the many customized Web bots John designed to scour the world looking for possible news about Skynet precursors had pinged. Gil Macgaw, noted professor at the University of Chicago, had published an academic treatise: "The real-time paradigm: the problem with AI implementation in open environment gaming,." Likely it was of interest only to theoretical computer scientists, game designers—and anyone with an interest in preventing the development of a misanthropic machine intelligence destined to initiate a worldwide nuclear holocaust.
John and Cameron wanted to meet the man.
John noisily slurped his malted milkshake—extra malt—before he responded, thinking out loud as much as providing an answer. "The short answer is, nothing. I think what we're here to do is recruit. The Resistance won't be won by firepower alone. We have to understand how Skynet thinks. This Gil guy … he's like a supergenius. Doctorates in mathematics, computer science, linguistics, and biochemistry. And fluent in Chinese, French, and ancient Greek, of all things. Scuttlebutt is that he might just become the youngest Fields Medalist in history.
"Think of what a guy like that could do for the Resistance—and for rebuilding the world if we win!" he said excitedly.
"When," Cameron said.
"I don't know when, Cam, you'd know better than that," he said.
"No. When we win. Not if," she said. John felt his ego soar at her matter-of-fact tone. He didn't understand her complete faith in him, but it sure made him feel good about himself to know that she did.
"Okay. When we win," he agreed absently. "I'll take your word for it. The point is, Macgaw the AI researcher can help us understand how Skynet thinks. The biochemist can show us how to grow food even in damaged soil conditions. And if we get his brain on our side now, who knows what ideas he might come up with? All we have to do is convince him to join us."
"You'll convince him," Cameron said proudly. "I know you will."
As it turned out, Dr. Magaw was away on a conference, so it was two days before he got back into town and his secretary would book an appointment to see him. She assumed merely that he and Cameron were yet another two College students who had fallen behind on their coursework and needed to beg for an extension.
In the meantime, mindful of Amanda's offhand advice to see what there was of the world, just in case it would disappear in the next few years, John and Cameron explored the joys of the Windy City.
John had spent all his life in Southern California, and the first thing he realized about Chicago was that it was cold. Not freezingly so, but definitely colder than the sunshine and warmth he was used to.
He also noticed that it was undeniably flat, and that people in Chicago tended to be … larger. Not necessarily obese, but the men tended to be built like refrigerators and even the young, pretty girls were … thicker, even when they were clearly toned and athletic. Dimly he remembered something about Chicago being called the city of big shoulders.
Cameron didn't notice. The humans were sized within normal parameters as far as she was concerned. She did notice, however, that the buildings were more distinctive and featured a broader variety in the designs. Somehow, she liked them. She liked the restored Art Deco masterpieces, the functional modern skyscrapers with their cold steel girders openly showing. She even liked the gray stone gothic buildings that made up the campus of the University of Chicago, and the everpresent gargoyles around campus that John had told her were supposed to ward off evil.
The four also took some time to walk around and eat, stuffing themselves with deep dish pizza at Gino's East—a restaurant that Sarah was dismayed to find also believed in allowing graffiti on the dishes, glasses, walls and tables. Nevertheless, the pizza was decadent, hearty, heavy … and ridiculously good. Walking outside afterward, she stopped as she heard Derek's plea: "Uh, hold on a sec," he gasped.
Sarah turned and looked at him. "Oh for god's sake, Derek," she muttered, rolling her eyes. "Nobody told you to finish that fifth piece. That's just disgusting. You don't see any of us stuffing ourselves to the point of illness, do you?"
Sarah turned at the sudden, explosive noise and John looked slightly sheepish. "Um, excuse me?" he offered. He, too, was red and sweaty, with his normally flat stomach distended grossly outward.
"Men!" she snarled, walking away, Cameron looking back and forth between Sarah and John.
"That belch sounded almost exactly like a burst of automatic gunfire," Cameron said admiringly. "This is a skill you should perfect. It could prove useful."
The next morning, Sarah made them all do a run along the Lake, plotting a course twice as long as usual to work off the enormous caloric surplus they'd accumulated the day before. Though John could still feel Gino's finest sitting in his stomach, he still enjoyed the run. He got to see the cross-section of the city biking, running, and cycling amidst the gentle waves of Lake Michigan—seeing old men playing chess near the Oak Street beach, just a short distance away from the strolling trophy wives and college students, running past food vendors near Grant Park, past the tourists by the new metallic bean statue, past the Mexican immigrants grilling delicious food as they headed back south.
Inwardly, he sighed. Though he longed for this kind of life, what he had always thought of as normalcy, he saw now that there was no such thing as a normal life—just life. And though there would always be challenges ahead, he was thankful for what he got to enjoy and would, if he was lucky, continue to enjoy long after these people were gone.
Macgaw was due back that day, and per standard procedure, John had made an appointment during the professor's office hours for two days later. In the meantime, they split into teams of two—Sarah and Derek shadowing the researcher while John and Cameron shadowed Sarah and Derek to make sure there weren't any other agents—Skynet or otherwise—tracking them or the professor.
After two days of watching him teach, eat student union-sold shawerma, drink copious cups of coffee, and devour an astonishingly tall array of periodicals, journals, research papers, and novels, they concluded that he was clear, and it was safe for John and Cameron to keep their appointment.
"No," the skinny professor said quietly.
"No?" repeated John. "Perhaps I need to show you proof of what I just told you …"
"That won't be necessary," Macgaw replied. "I assume your girlfriend here, Cameron, would demonstrate some aspect of her cyborg capabilities, such as enhanced strength or the ability to process large amounts of data quickly and intelligently."
At John's and Cameron's surprised looks, he explained. "Cameron emulates a human very well, but a few things give her away. Her pronunciation is a little too precisely calibrated to the neutral Oklahoma accent—even a news anchor can't duplicate that. Her skin is just a little too flawless, or haven't you noticed the pimples on the hygienically challenged students around here? And I can't help but notice that for the past hour, she hasn't once played with her hair. Every woman in the U.S. touches her hair unconsciously at least once in a while.
"It's nothing that anyone would ever notice," he assured Cameron, "but once you start talking about cyborgs as a real possibility, the signs are there if you're observant enough."
"So," John said guardedly. "You believe that Skynet is a real threat in the future."
"That it will be malevolent and start a massive holocaust that leads in turn to massive genocide."
"But you're unwilling to help?"
"I didn't say I was unwilling to help. I just don't believe you need to prepare to go to war as if that's the only option," he said.
"In the future, did anybody ever try to ascertain why Skynet decided humans were a threat?" he asked Cameron.
"Nobody understands Skynet's motives. Not even the robot slaves it creates," Cameron replied.
"War should be the last option," Macgaw said, a lecture-hall tone creeping into his voice. "Perhaps the solution to the problem of Judgment Day is as simple as …"
John rolled his eyes. "Typical," he muttered, as he watched Cameron suddenly tense up in response to a series of crashes and screams outside the door.
Gunshots rang out, and instinctively, John hit the floor, then reached up and grabbed Macgaw by the collar to yank him down.
The academic had clearly never heard the sound of a gun firing, and he tried to get up to open the door to see what the commotion was about. Cameron responded by throwing her heavy body on top of both John and Macgaw, causing the latter to grunt with surprise.
As he tried once more to rise, the door crashed open, and a familiar face came through. Cromartie.
Cromartie quickly scanned the three bodies lying on the floor, and paused momentarily as he recognized Cameron, and then John. He cocked his head even as his HUD made a positive identification of Gil Macgaw. In the split second that his computerized brain tried to shift mission objectives back to the default—terminating John Connor, and attempted to override the logic circuit that declared that the previous mission had already been accomplished, Cameron and John simultaneously drew their guns and fired. Moving like the close-knit duo that they were, they coordinated their attacks, with John focusing his aim on Cromartie's gun-toting right hand while Cameron tried to take out the Terminator's eyes.
The resulting sparks made it impossible to see whether or not Cameron was successful, but John was—the machine pistol flew from Cromartie's hand. "Go!" he screamed at Cameron. "Take him! I'll hold him off!" He continued firing, emptying his clip into the robotic killer.
Cameron hesitated, torn between her natural instinct to protect John and her knowledge that it made sense for her to protect the more vulnerable Macgaw now that John had improved durability and combat abilities. "Go!" John screamed again as Cromartie regained his balance and began to advance.
Cameron nodded, yanking John into a sudden, bruising kiss before she snagged Macgaw's collar, tossed him over her shoulder, and punched a hole in the crumbly plaster of the far wall and exited.
John kept his eyes on Cromartie. Though there was significant damage to the ocular region, and red orbs glowed from within, it was clear that the robotic assassin had no problems targeting John. Devoid of its gun, it rushed forward, leaving John with no time to reload. A right-handed punch at John's face threatened to cave it in. Rage filling his senses, John met the charge, stepping in and slipping the punch by the barest of margins.
Shifting his head six inches to the left at the last second, John parried with his left hand across his body while simultaneously stepping in and firing a crisp right of his own at Cromartie's face. That right punch quickly shifted into a trap as John withrew his lead hand to immobilize Cromartie's arm and threw a wide, powerful left hook that snapped his head sideways. On the rebound he followed with a series of similarly interlocking strikes that targeted Cromartie's throat, nose, and rib cage in the space of a second.
If Cromartie had been a human, the aggressive response would have killed him, destroying his trachea, puncturing his lung, shattering his nose and breaking his arm.
Instead, John belatedly felt the bones in his hands, broken from the impact of flesh against hard coltan steel, and then he felt even more intense pain as they knitted back together. That pain was then dwarfed by the pain in his cheek as Cromartie swung his immobilized arm and flung him face first into the corner of Macgaw's desk, scattering computers everywhere. As John tried to rise, he received a metal and machine-augmented boot to his sternum, causing fire to explode throughout his chest. His vision dimmed as he rolled away and fought to stand up. Trying to buy time, John began shuffling away awkwardly, attempting to stay just out of range without running away. As his vision began to clear, his thoughts grew more rational. He continued to evade, batting away Cromartie's punches and avoiding his attempts to reach out and grab him. It was a series of close escapes, designed to keep Cromartie's attention, and it worked.
John took a softer approach now, countering only with evasions and light throws designed to break Cromartie's balance, at one point sweeping off to the side and stomping down on the back of Cromartie's knee. As with a human, Cromartie went down. Unlike a human, however, Cromartie's knee failed to shatter into a series of bone shards and instead, the cyborg was able to stand up and nearly landed a backfist counter of his own, and then a left cross that overextended just a little bit—
—just enough for John to intercept it with his own left on the outside of the metal arm, immobilize it with his right hand on the artificial elbow joint just enough to clear a straight path for John's spear hand—a straight thrust into Cromartie's left eye. The force of his stiffened fingers darting forward shattered the metal and plexiglass construction, though the cost had been broken, bloodied fingers bent at a disgusting-looking angle. Unfortunately, Cromartie merely lowered his shoulder and bodychecked John across the room. John landed on his back, where he felt, underneath his black leather trench coat, something dig into his neck—his sword, so uncomfortable normally, yet forgotten in the heat of battle.
He had taken to wearing a sword underneath a black leather trenchcoat, adapting a thug-like look to keep the blade hidden from view. Most times, he strapped it in and forgot it—after all, who uses a sword in combat these days, unless you're facing an Immortal?
Now he remembered.
He got up.
The gunshots and the fights had not gone unnoticed—screams of students, faculty and admin staff filled the air even as Cameron walked calmly and purposefully through the mayhem, Macgaw thrown over her shoulder like a sack of dirty laundry. She met with Sarah and Derek rushing in, guns drawn.
"Where's John?" Sarah demanded as she grabbed Cameron's lapel with her free hand.
"Inside," Cameron responded. "He is holding off Cromartie while I get the professor to safety."
"You left him alone to face him?" Derek demanded incredulously.
"It's what John ordered me to do," she replied, meeting his gaze. She didn't flinch.
"He's alone in there, facing that thing!" Sarah cried.
"He will be fine," Cameron responded, a spark of pride in her voice. "John has the skills and durability to hold off a triple eight until I can return. If he is unable to destroy it by then, I will assist." She turned and continued in the direction of the exit.
Disbelievingly, Derek and Sarah watched her go, then turned as one to sprint toward the source of the sounds of battle being raged. It didn't take them long to find the fight: Cromartie came crashing through the wall right in front of them followed by a John Connor Derek dimly recognized—and one that Sarah had never seen.
This was not John, the petulant teenager, or John, the scared child in need of protection, or even John, a son bowed down by the knowledge of his destiny and responsibility.
This was John Connor the warrior, and he was rage focused into ice-hardened steel. His clothes were ripped and blood stained, blood dripped from a gash across his forehead surrounded by faint blue sparks, knuckles swollen to an unnatural size and black gaps from missing teeth clearly visible through lips pulled back in a snarl. Through his eyes—one swollen almost shut, rage shone through. If he noticed his mother and uncle standing down the hall, he didn't show it.
"Come on," he snarled. "That the best you can do?" he taunted.
Cromartie looked the worse for wear, though his face remained devoid of emotion. A gaping black hole sparked where his left eye had once been, his thigh bowed strangely inwards, throwing his gait off, and all the flesh had been torn away from his throat, revealing the metal underneath. Cromartie wasted no time in getting to his feet and throwing himself toward John again.
At what seemed like the last second, John stepped to the side and spun away. And as Cromartie rushed past, John drew his sword in one smooth movement and brought it down across the back of the exposed metal neck. Sarah flinched as the dreadful screech of metal tearing against metal reached her ears.
Cromartie staggered and went down, but he managed to push himself to his feet, where John was waiting. As the cyborg reached out, John swung again—a wide, looping blow aimed at the neck, which had been scored, but not completely severed.
The cyborg was ready. He casually blocked the blade with one hand, twisting it as he took it away. Grabbing the handle, he shoved John back several steps, and then he thrust. John's eyes popped open and he hissed with pain as the gnarled sword came out where his left kidney would be. Then they refocused.
"John!" Sarah cried out in horror, feet rooted to the spot.
John grasped Cromartie's sword arm with his left hand, using it as a handle to pull himself even closer to the cyborg. With his right hand, he grabbed the back of Cromartie's neck, and he leaned in.
"Fuck you," he whispered in his ear as his left hand reached inside his jacket, pulled out a long, military knife and shoved it into Cromartie's one remaining eye. As the cyborg began to struggle and attempt to pull back, John maintained his iron grip on his head and began carving a hole in the flesh above its CPU port. Still impaled, John grunted in pain as he tore the skin away and twisted off the port cover. Reaching in, he yanked out the chip, and abruptly, Cromartie's body froze.
With a final shove, John pushed the inert body away from him. A sickening squelching sound could be heard as the sword came out, doing as much damage coming out as it had going in. John fell to his knees, coughing out a spray of blood. As Sarah watched, Cameron came out of nowhere, rushing to him and pulling him gently to her chest.
"Take care of this, will you?" John asked as he put Cromartie's chip into her hand. She clenched her fist, mangling it into an unrecognizable mass, then put it in her pocket.
"Later," she said, kissing him gently. She looked at Sarah and Derek. "I told you he could handle Cromartie," she said.
"Handle him?" Derek spat. "Look at him! He's a mess!"
"It's nothing he hasn't done before. Nothing he doesn't do at least once a week when he trains with Duncan," she responded.
"What?!?!" Sarah demanded. "Duncan does this to him during training sessions??"
Straightening slightly, John looked up. "You train like you fight," he said simply.
"It happens less now," Cameron said, trying to reassure Sarah. "John is getting better, he can usually hold off Duncan long enough for the bell to ring."
"That's supposed to make me feel better? That my son gets stabbed and brutalized a little less often now?" Sarah spat.
"How else is he going to learn how to fight through the pain? He needed to get used to it," Cameron said.
John nodded, and Derek drew back unconsciously, stunned by the strength of will and the hardness that shone through his eyes. "What did you think I've been doing every afternoon for the past six months?" he asked sarcastically. "Help me up, please," he said to Cameron as he tried to push himself to his feet.
"Macgaw?" he asked.
"Unconscious. In the trunk," Cameron reported, looking him square in the eye. "I couldn't take the chance that he would go straight to the police."
John nodded, then looked at Cromartie's body on the ground. "We need to take this, too. Can you and Derek handle it? I can lean on Mom."
Ryerson Hall was one of the older buildings on campus, and as such, was connected to a series of steam tunnels that crisscrossed underground everywhere. Together, they headed into them now, John leaning on his mother as Derek and Cameron carried the body into the tunnels. Eventually, they emerged several blocks away above ground, where Cameron had moved the SUV. Opening the trunk, they saw a still groggy Macgaw.
"Do we move the prof up front with us, or what?" Derek asked.
"Just stuff him inside on top of the guy," John said. "Might be a good reality check for him to wake up and see the reality of war. Let's go. I need a shower." Taking his arm off of Sarah's shoulder, he moved toward the rear door, moving on his own steam, but clearly still in pain. Derek and Sarah looked at each other, and Cameron, and wordlessly, they, too got into the vehicle. Moments later, they were gone.
Two days later, the four of them headed back to California. They had holed up in the nearby town of Cicero, chosen because its residents knew better than to ever call the police about anything unusual and because John needed time to fully recover.
Sarah was still recovering from the shock of seeing how hard John could be when the situation warranted it. Not only during the fight, but afterwards. As they drove away, she looked in the mirror, seeing Gil Macgaw standing on the street, nervously trying to figure out what to do.
"See this?" John had said to Macgaw the night before right before they torched Cromartie's body. Macgaw swayed. It had taken four shots of Jack Daniels to get him to stop shaking, but the result was a somewhat lessened sense of balance.
"Did this thing give you any time to 'ascertain' its motives before it tried to kill you?" John asked, throwing the professor's words at him.
Macgaw shook his head, eyes wide open.
"There will be no negotiations," John told him. "Assuming we fail to stop Skynet from going online, it will begin its attack immediately. War starts the day after. There will be no negotiations, because you don't negotiate with Skynet. We have nothing it wants, except our lives. Understand?"
"So we need to be ready. You're lucky. All you need to do is what you've been doing. Study. Learn. Read. And then be ready to survive. Remember: April 19, 2011."
"Good. Just survive. Stay in Chicago. I'll come find you," John said as he got back in the SUV. Learning out the window, he added, "It wouldn't hurt for you to go to the gym once in a while."
Back in the present, Sarah asked, "Are we sure it was a good idea to leave him stranded here?
Derek responded. "Nah. Toughen him up. If he can't handle something like this, he'll be useless to the Resistance. So. We're done, right? Back to Cali?"
"Yeah, back there. But when we get back, we might need to do a trip to Japan. I need a new sword," John said.
All details about the University of Chicago are accurate.
Those who have been following the human interest stories of Barack Obama preparing to head to the White House might recognize the name of the Med, short for the Medici. A favorite hangout for everyone on campus, known for its burgers, milkshakes, and its "garbage pizza," this place has probably hosted more Nobel Prize winners than any other restaurant outside of Sweden—not to mention plenty of typical college and university students and a soon-to-be president. (Though I suspect Obama probably prefers the slightly more sedate location a few blocks north.)
Gino's East also exists. Awesome pizza, the best (IMO) in the world.
The Fields Medal is highest honor a pure mathematician can receive. The MIT professor who takes an interest in Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting" is probably the best known (albeit fictional) Fields Medalist.
The town of Cicero, slightly southwest of Chicago, is an infamously corrupt town that, as recently as 2001, was run by the remnants of Al Capone's organization. It is essentially one large red light district.
For any martial artists reading this, John's moves are loosely based on strategies and tactics used by practitioners of wing chun, escrima, JKD, and baguazhang.
Finally, I generally welcome, but don't solicit, reviews. However, this chapter contains the first extended action sequence I've written. So thoughts about that or the story in general are welcome. As you might have guessed, this series will be ongoing, with each chapter a longer self-contained story that takes place in a place outside of California.